The Norton Book of Travel [edited by Paul Fussell]
Unfortunately Mr. Fussell has mistaken descriptive literary passages for travel writing. Little harm is done by including odd verses such as Blake’s “Ah, Sunflower,” Hardy’s “Midnight on the Great Western,” or Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” but passages from Dodsworth or Farewell to Arms do not belong in this anthology. Travel writing is a genre itself; fiction and lyric are likely to privilege other priorities.
His claim that travel in the modern sense is a very recent amusement is of a piece with his citation of Freud “A great part of the pleasure of travel lies in the fulfillment of . . . early wishes to escape the father and especially the family.” Psychologists may now see how many of Freud’s insights, while profound, are bound by time and culture. Still, one is glad for his discussing the theory of travel at all and for ferreting out the quotation (and the next, from Levi-Strauss, and Aristotle and then Flaubert a few lines later). In the middle of this pleasant miscellany of opinion, one does encounter a few sound truisms, such as travel being broadening and sharpening the senses, and he concludes with a sound observation on the double narrative (observer and observed) implied by every travel story.
In the end the variety of ideas set forth resembles the variety of texts. There is plenty to enjoy. He does include the marvelous Robert Byron, and I did encounter the Romantic German vagabond in England Karl Philip Moritz here for the first time.
The Thief and the Dogs [Mahfouz]
Naguib Mahfouz’ novel would make an excellent film noir screenplay. The main character’s consciousness is consistently desperate and anxious; the reader sympathizes with antihero Said, a petty thief driven by his sense of honor to violence. The action is swift and unrelenting as he drives toward his own wretched fate. He is stoic, only rarely allowing a glimmer of hope to intrude on his self-righteous victimhood. Though a criminal, he has the sense of the long-exploited that he is merely setting things straight in a small way when he takes the belongings of the rich. His affection for his daughter is real, but he was not cut out to be a father. His relations with women are defined by his wounded pride at Nabawiyya and the favors he accepts from Nur. The violence that results seems to arise more from profound anguish than from the political context – the collapse of the hope of intellectuals in Nasser-style socialism -- that is regarded by many as a significant theme. The Sufi Sheikh Ali al-Junaydi provides mystical commentary for those who prefer Sufism to Existentialism.
Myth and Ritual in Christianity [Watts]
From adolescence I have been fascinated with mysticism. I devoured Evelyn Underhill’s books, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, and (pseudo-)Dionysius the Areopagite and tried to imagine myself in ineffable transport. I proved to be the worst of meditators in spite of the fact that in those days I could pull myself into a full lotus. My contemplative peak was the ability to undergo Friends meeting for worship with satisfaction if not divine “openings.” One impediment I experienced was difficulty in interpreting the mythic system with which I was most familiar, that of Christianity. Even when I went through confirmation as a Protestant, I had lost whatever faith I had had as a young child. Even after years in the realms of Daoist, Buddhist, and Hindu thought, I never felt I had a sympathetic grasp Christ’s story or of the Christian reading of the Hebrew scriptures until I read this book.
Now, I am well aware that Watts had a good bit of the charlatan about him (as do many native shamans). He had undertaken Zen training before becoming a priest and then a media figure (though at first only on KPFA, the Pacifica station in Berkeley). He gained a considerable reputation as a bon vivant with an eye for the women and a relish for alcohol and other drugs. Christians will recoil from his heterodoxy just as his Buddhism was criticized by D. T. Suzuki himself. Still, he taught me important things that have opened up to me way of understanding a great many Christian texts. After fifty years I reread this book without disappointment.